New Brunswick

Fredericton firefighters worked pandemic under expired labour contract

Firefighters in Fredericton are impatient to reach a labour contract with the city after working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic under a deal that expired in 2019.

Fredericton Fire Fighters' Association and city move to arbitration

Labour negotiations between Fredericton and its firefighters were paused during the pandemic to allow critical services to continue unaffected. (Fredericton Fire Fighters' Association/Facebook)

Firefighters in Fredericton are impatient to reach a labour contract with the city after working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic under a deal that expired in 2019.

"We're dealing with COVID positive people on a daily basis ... so we do stare death in the face every day, and we just want a fair contract for our members going forward," said Barry Durling, president of Local 1053 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Wages have been the main issue for the 104 firefighters, fire prevention and trainee officers in the union.

"We weren't looking for anything exorbitant in raises … in all my 21 years of firefighting, I've never met a firefighter that got rich of being a firefighter," Durling said. "We do it to serve the public."

Barry Durling is president of Local 1053 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union for the Fredericton Fire Fighters' Association. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC)

When the pandemic was declared in 2020, the city and union agreed to put negotiations on hold so their services wouldn't be affected.

Talks resumed last spring but broke down after a week. Negotiations were unsuccessful again when a provincially appointed conciliator came in for the next round of talks. Now the two sides have moved on to arbitration.

Durling would not get into specifics of the union's wage demands or the city's response.

"We were looking for what our comparables got in Moncton and Saint John, we've had 40 years of comparable contracts with the three fire departments, and we were looking for something similar to that and the city wasn't willing to move on their original offer."

Under the Industrial Relations Act, police officers and firefighters cannot go on strike or be locked out.

In 2020, amendments to the act said an arbitrator binding decision would have to consider a municipality's ability to pay 

The Department of  Labour was unable to comment on the negotiations between cities and their firefighters.

Fredericton communications manager Wayne Knorr suggested the negotiating process has taken longer this time around because of the restrictive conditions during the COVID-19.

"In-person meetings for negotiations are best, and both parties have worked together to do that whenever possible," he said.

The City of Saint John said labour negotiations are continuing with Saint John firefighters. (CBC)

Saint John firefighters are also working under an expired contract, but CBC News was unable to speak with Local 771 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

In a statement, the City of Saint John said there would be no comment while labour negotiations continued. 

In 2020, the council approved the elimination of over two dozen firefighter positions and the closing of a fire hall to save about $1.87 million. 

The cuts resulted in 24 jobs being eliminated through attrition and the Millidgeville Fire Station closing permanently. 

"None of the reduced positions have been reinstated," Chief Kevin Clifford said in a statement.

He added that a recent posting for holiday relief firefighters is to fill vacant positions that will be created upon retirements later this year.   

Firefighters see more success in Moncton 

The Moncton Firefighters Association and the City of Moncton negotiated a collective agreement that ends on Dec. 31, 2023. 

Negotiations led to a 2.25 per cent annual wage increase for 111 firefighters and officers. 

According to Ashley Graham, president of the union local, this translates to roughly $94,000 a year for a first-class firefighter.

The Moncton Firefighters Association and the City of Moncton were able to negotiate a four-year collective agreement that ends on Dec. 31, 2023.  (Shane Magee/CBC)

"We did a kind of an interest based negotiation," Graham said. "So we put a a monetary value to every ask, from the city or from the union. So we're able to look at what exact costs were … if there was a benefit increase from this, or a decrease or a change from the city or from the union.

"It was the first time in many years that we're able to freely negotiate a contract with the city. It actually helped that we are having better labour relations with the city."

Graham said that the financial health of a city has an impact on the ease of labour negotiations. 

"We did this during a pandemic, which a year and a half ago … we didn't know what a pandemic was going to look like. Financially economically, it's actually for the Maritimes, it's been a huge boost because the tax values have gone up significantly. So the cities have a larger income that's coming in." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mrinali is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has worked in newsrooms across the country in Toronto, Windsor and Fredericton. She has chased stories for CBC's The National, CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup and CBC News Network. Reach out at Mrinali.anchan@cbc.ca

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